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Ask the naturalist: How to protect bobolink nests?

By Ron Reid

After my recent article in ON Nature about the cooperation between Ontario cattlemen and conservationists to save the bobolink, readers contacted me to find out if there was a way of actually locating the nests in hay/grass fields. Some had watched their hayfields for years, and had always seen bobolinks, but never been able to find the nests of this rare species. The farmers wondered if they would need to change how they cultivate an entire crop if birds are believed to be nesting a particular section of their fields.

A few farmers were also interested to know if a volunteer “nest-location program” would be an option for those who are eager and willing to be a part of the bobolink recovery efforts. Unfortunately, even for experts, finding bobolink nests is a notoriously challenging task. Parent birds often land some distance from the nest and sneak through the grass to fool predators. As well, in searching for the nests, they would risk trampling the eggs.

I believe that the best approach would be to observe which sections of the field the birds, especially the females, are most active in to get a general sense of their location. In prime habitat, bobolinks often nest together in loose clusters. Those sections should then be where stewardship activities are focused.

The enthusiastic participation of farmers and other rural landowners is going to be critical to the future prospects of Ontario’s bobolinks. If farmers see bobolinks in a part of their fields and are able to leave that section uncut till the young bobolinks are fledged, by mid-July at the latest, that delay will greatly boost bobolink survival rates. The unfortunate trade-off is that late-cut hay is lower quality. So, to be fair in case of rented farm land, landowners may need to negotiate a lower rental price for those “late” sections with their farmers.

Ron Reid, Carden Program coordinator for the Couchiching Conservancy and former director of conservation at Ontario Nature, enjoys birding in the rural countryside.


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  1. Katherine F.

    First – wondering if there is an organized effort to work with farmers (I’m in Ottawa) or to do some organized “passing along” of info from neighbour to neighbour as was done in the article.

    Also was talking to my friend about this and we were wondering about night goggles – perhaps they could be used to “locate” nests in fields?

    Really felt encouraged to read that there are some things happening in regard to this issue!

    • There is someone in Ontario working on a drone system that takes heat signatures of the field to locate birds. The positions are recorded via GPS, and those areas are avoided until the birds reach maturity.

      Unfortunately, I don’t know the name of the project. I heard the person who started it call in to CBC Ontario Today a couple of months ago. I looked online, but there was no web presence at that time.

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